Aug 9, 2022 - News

Amid human trafficking hysteria, Utah refugees face false accusations

Signs at a protest read "Save our children" and "End all human trafficking."
People march during a "Save the Children" rally outside the Capitol building on Aug. 22, 2020, in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Refugee advocates in Logan are trying to protect a group of Afghan men after a viral Tik Tok video last week wrongly accused them of human trafficking at a carnival.

  • The men, who served alongside the U.S. military in Afghanistan, fled to Utah after the Taliban took over the country last year.

What's happening: The Tik Tok video shows the men filming carnival rides on their cell phones, with captions from the person filming them saying the men had no children with them and exhorting viewers to "STOP HUMAN TRAFFICKING!!!"

But actually: The men were showing the carnival to their families in Afghanistan via video chat, said Danny Beus, executive director of Cache Refugee and Immigrant Connection.

  • The video was viewed more than two million times and remained online for days — even after refugee advocates told its creator the men were refugees and not human traffickers.

Why it matters: The men's faces are visible along with information about their location, which puts them at risk of vigilantism, a tactic previously used by anti-trafficking activists, according to the FBI.

  • Their exposure through a viral video could also put their families at risk, Beus said.
  • "We just want everyone to be safe," Beus told Axios.

The big picture: Anti-trafficking campaigns have flooded Utah and the rest of the nation in recent years, fueling panic over child abductions as they claim to "raise awareness."

  • Unsubstantiated reports of trafficking are popular on TikTok, where users share their suspicions in videos of people sitting in parked cars or holding phones in airports.
  • Claims of rampant child sex trafficking are frequently exaggerated, The Atlantic reported earlier this year.

Conservative groups in particular have made child trafficking a cause célèbre.

  • The issue has dovetailed with tough-on-crime messaging, anti-immigrant and racist sentiments, promotion of traditional gender roles, and anti-masking arguments during the pandemic.

Zoom in: The recent primary contest for Utah County Attorney drew on human trafficking fears, and ultimately unseated David Leavitt, a moderate who favored sentencing reform.

  • The movement set the stage for Coco Berthmann, a high-profile anti-trafficking activist who said for years that she was trafficked by pedophiles in Germany and is now charged in Utah with faking a cancer diagnosis to raise money.
  • The popular nonprofit Operation Underground Railroad was under investigation in Davis County over whether it exaggerated its role in sex abuse arrests according to the Standard Examiner.
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